sat 13/07/2024

Three Sisters, Sovremennik review - over-conscious of its legendariness | reviews, news & interviews

Three Sisters, Sovremennik review - over-conscious of its legendariness

Three Sisters, Sovremennik review - over-conscious of its legendariness

Celebrated Moscow company makes Chekhov far from contemporary

Escaping reality: Vershinin (Vladislav Vetrov) in the Prozorov householdImages N Golovanova/Sovremennik

Sovremennik is Russian for “contemporary”, and ever since its founding in the Soviet Union's 1950s Thaw, Moscow’s Sovremennik Theatre company has lived by the idea that it expresses new, fresh breath in Russian theatre. Unless you argue that the adjective “contemporary” by definition must reveal characteristics of its temporal surroundings, moribund is not one of the alternative meanings of the word.

Or in this case one should argue positively that Galina Volchek's production of Chekhov's Three Sisters does comment subversively on today.

I find it hard to see it positively. This stolid production feels over-conscious of the legendariness of its name and the play. The conventions seem to date from half a century ago, when Volchek was one of the Sovremennik's founding actors (she's now 83), and archetypes have been milled by luminaries to hand down to new generations.

But surely Chekhov's restless, frozen, claustrophobic 1900 drama is all about intimacies, whether sought or not, and about the imprisonment of identities in the moment. Whether the viewer feels desperate on behalf of the younger generation who will never make it to Moscow depends on the actors making us intuit the suffocating immediacy of those family bonds and social obligations - a genuine sense that “contemporary” means now.

I was puzzled at the absence of credible relationships (impossible for me not to remember the miraculous Cusack family performance at the Gate, Dublin, 20-odd years ago) and a widespread sense of something embalmed, an enactment by numbers of the holy ritual that is Chekhov. All the stranger considering the premium the Sovremennik put in their publicity on the emotional credibility in their style, so possibly my unresponsiveness must indicate a simple culture gap.split stage, Three Sisters, SovremennikThe staging, suggesting Chekhov’s period, hovers between symbolism and naturalism. Against a foggy grey background a garden bridge arches high over an open floor on which elegant white 19th-century furniture is grouped on a revolve to indicate drawing room, dining room, bedroom, all of which whirls distractingly around between scenes like a carousel (the mise-en-scène pictured above). Against the dessicated costume palette — white, black, grey for women, mostly light khaki uniforms for the men — the pink satin favoured by the sisters’ new sister-in-law Natalia shrieks obviously of her lower class.

The whole thing seems over-planned and under-imagined. To constrict the action inside just two sections of the stage, the circle in the middle or the bridge overhead, does certainly spell out a thematic contrast between down-to-earth reality and head-in-the-clouds hopes, but it sets a considerable challenge to actors to look as if they lived there, rather than were finding it all rather awkward.

The players dashed on for their scene, rushed around each other animatedly as they conversed, and strode importantly to front of stage to deliver their reflections on life to us. More like grand opera - as if roles had been preformed and the actors instructed according to their ranking, rather than developed from inside genuine human psyches: Chebutykin as a comic-book old drunk was a particular bore (RIP Cyril Cusack), and the capricious missishness of Alyona Babenko’s Masha made her character very difficult to like or believe in. Sergei Yushkevich's Kulygin was not so irritating a husband as to make the pompous Vershinin of Vladislav Vetrov impossible to resist.

sisters, SovremennikOther elements jarred — while Chekhov’s text emphasises the lack of good looks in Tuzenbach, one of Irina’s suitors, Shamil Khamatov is by any definition a handsome young man. Irina herself, though celebrating her 20th birthday at the start, never left off playing with her teddy through the years that followed. Again, I could not feel a necessary point about immaturity, since Victoria Romanenko evolved quickly to a far from childish Irina by the end. And why go against the text in the fire scene? All is clean and pristine, the sisters in angelic white (pictured right), and Vershinin hasn't a smut on his uniform, despite his comments about being so dirty from his heroic acts. These aren't contrarinesses that I could make any sense of.

Vocal underprojection was also a general problem, even in the small Piccadilly Theatre. Olga Drozdova’s Olga was a major offender in this, and a generous oversupply of birdsong on tape and very bright surtitle screens did not mitigate it (especially when titles broke down at climactic moments). By contrast the elderly Yelena Millioti as nurse Anfisa, another historic Sovremennik member, gave an object lesson in clarity.

Still, even if one felt little connection with the sisters’ personal tragedies, not quite all Chekhovian heart was lost. I did respond to some genuine poignancy in the playing of their disappointing brother Andrei Prozorov, his weakness made likeable and credible by Ilya Lykov. Most of all Yelena Plaksina touchingly showed in his bustling wife, Natalia, the damage of her social elevation, as she turned from the bright-faced, rather appealing fiancée of Act 1 into a grasping, spoiled wife. Plaksina, larger than life in her vulgar pink dress and curls, was contemporary.


It was more like grand opera - as if roles had been preformed and actors instructed


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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